"Breaking up with a friend is much harder than dumping a lover — especially for women, a study has shown." Yeah — we know.
When I was in high school, I found myself in a bad relationship. She was a girl I'd met in an SAT prep course who lived not far away; we bonded over analogies and skipped the second hour of math. It was a friendship of convenience, not based on much common ground, but she was fun and acerbic and we disliked the same arrogant know-it-alls. And then, as these things sometimes do, the relationship lingered beyond its natural parameters. We got coffee a few times. I tried to bring her to a group thing, but she didn't get along with my other friends, so when we hung out on weekends, it was always one-on-one.
She was, it quickly became clear, someone who was always involved in drama: with her parents, with boys, with various other friends at her school. And then it started between us. She accused me of blowing her off and we had a tearful scene. Then she called from around-the-corner for a tearful reconciliation. She'd call me in the middle of the night - and this, mind you, in the days before cell phones. (This may have been the basis for my parents' strong negative feelings.) She said she didn't mind my meeting her much-older boyfriend because, unlike her other friends, I would not try to steal him. When she repeated to me "because she was my friend" that "someone" had described me as "an uglier Ione Skye with a stick up her ass," I was done.
All this drama was new to me; I've always subscribed to the Colette philosophy that the wheels of friendship should be well-greased with politeness, and with the exception of a very occasional blowup, my enduring friendships tend to be pacific. I had come to dread seeing her, and had long since ceased to gain any pleasure from a relationship which seemed to have very little to do with me anyway. And so, I was left with the strong sense that I needed to end things with my SAT buddy and absolutely no idea how to do it. I sought my dad's counsel and we had a serious heart-to-heart. He suggested, as is his wont, that I be direct.
And so, with a heavy heart, I asked her to meet me at the diner. Once there, I launched into a speech that definitely contained the phrases "I think we both have a lot of growing-up to do," "this is a really stressful period" and "maybe we should just take a break." (I know because I recently, while cleaning out my old room at my parents' house, came across the notebook where I'd written my script.) I felt awful. But not as nonplused as I was when I got her answer:
"No," she said. "No, I'm not going to let you do that." She also said she "had a lot to teach me," which in retrospect has an ominous ring to it.
So much for that. The friendship, such as it was, did indeed limp along for another few years — although she quickly immersed herself in other relationships at college — and petered off when she moved across the world to pursue her art. (And yes, details have been changed.) My dad would purse his lips whenever I made the "I'm not here!" signs in front of the phone, or went out to meet her, sighing heavily. But he didn't understand!
This was a mild case: we weren't so close that the relationship could get truly toxic, and no one had any especial influence on each other, which can be a real danger in a codependent relationship. (As detailed in such films as Me Without You and such chick-lit as Something Borrowed.) But it wasn't a friendship that should have gone on as long as it did. I'm not saying you should be that person who periodically and self-righteously kicks people out of her life as she "matures" or reaches some new form of dubious enlightment/boyfriend (which is a whole 'nother kettle of fish) but there are times when we need to have the ability to end a friendship that's objectively not bringing anything to anyone — whether it's an underminer, someone whom you realize who only ever drank with and have nothing in common with, or a personfrom whom you just need a little distance. But it's rarely that simple.
According to the Manchester University professor, Carol Smart, who led the study, "The ethics of friendship are very strong which makes it very hard to end a friendship, even when it has stopped being fun, because we feel terribly guilty about it." It's true: there is a cruelty to ending a female friendship that's different from a romantic breakup. It's not that you're incompatible or don't see yourselves getting married; it's that you just don't like someone enough to keep her a part of your life, end of story. The fact that there's frequently a complicity and intimacy to the friendship in the first place makes it even harder.
I have been trying to decide whether, in this regard, social networking sites are a boon or a disaster. On the one hand, no one is out of your life, ever. On the other, it can allow for a level of civil superficial contact that can serve, depending on your perspective, as a kinder bridge or a coward's crutch. Or is there still no substitute for the agony of "it's not you it's me?"